You can find Birmingham Conservatoire alumni on many operatic stages both here and abroad.
Off the top of my head I can think, for example, of performers with Welsh National Opera, Opera North and Munich Opera (one of the world’s most sought-after Wagnerian sopranos).
And currently Handsworth-raised Abigail Kelly is wowing audiences on tour with English Touring Opera.
The soprano tells me about her involvement with the organisation.
“ETO was the first professional opera company I worked for and I’ve been working with them regularly ever since. I’ve been involved not only in their main stage touring productions but also in their education and outreach projects, which can range from operas for primary school children to prison projects to performances for children and adults with special educational needs,” she begins.
“The current productions this year are three of the most contrasting pieces that you can put together in a tour!
“You’ve got your standard operatic repertoire in Mozart’s Magic Flute, an operetta verging on musical theatre in Britten’s Paul Bunyan and a tour de force of dramatic, contemporary opera in Tippett’s King Priam. I’m currently enjoying Paul Bunyan the most, though, as it’s such a fun opera to be in. Much of the onstage laughter is genuine, especially during the lumberjacks’ dance!”
With so many things going on in Abigail’s professional career, how does she manage to maintain a focus on everything?
“It can be very difficult to juggle all the different aspects of my job, especially the constant pull in opposite directions between teaching and performing,” she admits.
“However, because I’m lucky enough to be doing what I am passionate about it rarely feels like a chore. There’s usually a panic period in which all the different projects that I’m involved in at any one time are just swimming around in my head, but eventually I prioritise and slot it together like a jigsaw puzzle.’’
She adds: “My first experiences of performing were at a little dance school in Birmingham, performing song-and-dance routines and tap dancing along to 1940s jazz standards, so I’ve been hardwired to break down multiple pieces of information and to memorise music, words and movement from a very young age. It certainly comes in handy now when I have to remember entire operas and recital programmes often in foreign languages.
“In fact I’m considering going back to my roots and dusting off my tap shoes to perform a classical cabaret sometime next year!”
Abigail remains deeply attached to Birmingham Conservatoire. “My time there was very special indeed,” she remembers, “and just last year I was invited back to adjudicate the Cecil Drew Oratorio Prize. I’d actually entered that competition as a student whilst there (and unfortunately didn’t win!), but adjudicating was just as nerve-wracking as competing, to be honest.
“The BMus course is such a great course for young singers. I was on stage in the main operas learning about stage technique from the first year and performed in such varied productions, including contemporary opera, musical theatre and baroque opera.”
Abigail holds on very strongly to both her Birmingham and her West Indian roots.
“Birmingham gets a little bit of flak for some unknown reason but I’m very proud of our city. I love my home town and I’m very passionate about its progress. I even had a little emotional moment when I saw New Street Station for the first time since the renovation, so you can imagine how I felt walking around the new Library of Birmingham and REP complex – mind-blowing!
“Growing up with Jamaican parents who made it their obligation to instil in me an enormous sense of pride in my culture has definitely shaped who I am as a performer.
“My father was part of the Jamaican Folk Singers back in the day so I grew up knowing the Caribbean folk songs he used to sing which I now perform in recitals whenever and wherever I can. They also taught me a lot about my cultural history and I try and honour that history in my performances by including African American spirituals and songs written by composers of African descent.
“I’ve been lucky enough to perform recitals in a few Caribbean Islands including Grand Cayman, Montserrat and, of course, in Jamaica.”
And Abigail ends by telling me about using her gifts to religious ends.
“I grew up in the Church of England and joined my local church choir when I was 11 after much persuasion from my piano teacher. The choir was my introduction to singing classical choral music and I’ve enjoyed a close relationship with the diocese of Birmingham ever since, especially whilst John Sentamu was Bishop of Birmingham.
“I sang for his installation as Archbishop of York, which was a great honour. I feel that through my singing I have been given the opportunity to make a difference to society and give something back which, I suppose, is at the core of Christian faith.
“I’m extremely humbled to be able to take part in special educational needs projects, for example. English Touring Opera’s SEN projects are of the utmost importance. Words can’t describe how vital it is for children with developmental disabilities (mild or severe) to experience instrumentalists and singers performing live and in a very tailored and specific way so as to encourage stimulation of their senses. That for me is the most important aspect of what I do as a performer.”
* English Touring Opera are performing at the University of Warwick on May 8, 9 and 10. Details on 024 7652 4524.